A U.S. federal appeals court began hearing a case Monday on an amendment to Oklahoma's state constitution that bans Sharia, or Islamic law, as well as international law from being considered in state courts. Legal scholars say the case could affect similar moves in more than 20 other U.S. states.
In a referendum last year, 70 percent of voters in southwestern state of Oklahoma approved an amendment to the state's constitution that forbids courts from citing international or Sharia law in their judgments.
Last November, a judge in Oklahoma blocked the amendment after the leader of a Muslim civil rights group filed a lawsuit. The judge said the so-called "Save Our State Amendment" probably violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which separates religion and state. The lawsuit is now before the U.S. Court of Appeals based in Denver, Colorado.
The American Civil Liberties Union is backing the lawsuit. Daniel Mach is Director of its Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. "The government should never play favorites with religions, and the 'Save Our State Amendment' does just that. It effectively enshrines anti-Muslim bias into the Oklahoma Constitution," he said.
Sharia is Islam's religious law. U.S. courts routinely allow Muslims to have faith and family disputes decided according to Sharia as they do for followers of other religions and their respective religious codes.
Backers of the Oklahoma amendment argue that Sharia has been used to justify cruelty and repression in Muslim countries that base their laws on the religious code.
Stephen Gele is an attorney with the American Public Policy Alliance, which seeks to keep Sharia out of the U.S. justice system. He says he is worried about cross-border custody battles and other cases in which another country's laws might not give women the same rights as men.
"That is a real concern because as the world gets smaller and as people travel more and people have marriages and travel from country to country, we'll more and more find ourselves involved in cases where people are disputing what law should apply or should we recognize a foreign judgment," said Gele.
The Oklahoma referendum was one of the first legal actions at the state level to focus on Sharia as an alleged threat to American democracy. More than 20 other states are considering similar bans.